Aero India 2011: Competition Heats up Over India's Next Multi-role Medium Fighter

Contributor:  Rahul Bhonsle
Posted:  02/02/2011  12:00:00 AM EST
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The buzz at Aero India 2011 at Air Force Station Yelahanka, Bengaluru (more popularly known as Bangalore in Southern India) from 9 to 13 February will ironically not be emanating from aerobatic displays. Rather, it will be surrounding those aircraft that have undergone trials conducted by the Indian Air Force recently. They include the six leading fourth-generation plus combat fighters of the world: Lockheed Martin’s F-16IN Super Viper and Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, as well as the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, Saab JAS-39 Gripen IN and Mikoyan MiG-35.
 
MMRCA trials begin
The technical trials for these fighters, dubbed as MMRCA or Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (126 of which will join the Indian Air Force in a programme extending over 10 years) have been completed in wildly extreme climatic conditions, from the hot arid deserts of Rajasthan to the super high altitude steppes of the snow-clad Himalayas. The focus is now shifting to the final round of selection which usually comprises ‘pulls’ and ‘pressures’ - part of every such high value deal, but more so in India which is holding competitive bidding at such high stakes for the very first time.

Media channels have revealed that the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale have been marked up over others in the trial phase. This would certainly be a boost to EADS, as it attempts to gain a foothold in the Indian market with limited success to show so far, despite many attempts in the past. The Rafale is France’s ‘aero major’ and the Dassault Aviation piece de resistance. However, for others the race is far from over.  The cost of Typhoon and Rafale, reportedly varying from €60m to €100m, has given other competitors a great deal of hope. 

Moreover, India’s Ministry of Defence is known for hedging decisions on major defence deals and last minute cancellations have taken place in the past. EADS and subsidiary Eurocopter have been victims, due in large part to the lack of interest in the Air Bus 330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) and the AS550 C3 Fennec light helicopter selection, after having come close to selection. While the MRTT failed to make it due to high costs, there is still some mystery surrounding the cancellation of Fennec, denoting the high level of post trial competition for the defence market in India.
 
The international lineup
Thus, all six manufacturers, supported by their respective governments, are making a big splash in Bengaluru. The Americans have been first off the block with Lockheed Martin, who even went so far as to put the fifth generation F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter on the table. They have admitted to tentative interest from the Indian Navy for F-35 aircraft, both short and conventional take off variants. Indians will, however, demand a transfer of technology which will be difficult to pass muster given the restrictive arms transfer laws in the United States.
 
In addition, India has just concluded an agreement for a joint development programme with Russia for the T-50 5th generation fighter, 250 of which are likely to be purchased in a long term acquisition programme. Thus, the push for F-35 technology may be too late. Lockheed Martin is, however, not giving up and is likely to participate with the top-of-the-line F-22 A Raptor stealth fighter at Aero-India. It is also commonly believed that selling the F-16  (even the IN version) may be difficult for Lockheed Martin with Pakistan fielding one with the same brand name if not characteristics.
 
In the highly supercharged relations between two South Asian rivals, India’s political leaders, who are always wary of public opinion on defence deals at home, may just decide to play it safe unless the F-16 IN offers a qualitative leap in capability. But for Lockheed Martin, the exposure to the Indian defence market may prove valuable in the years ahead.

For US competitors, the AESA radars which have been fully integrated may provide the Boeing F/A–18 and the F-16 IN advantage in the sweep stakes ahead. The US companies also proffer a cost advantage based on life cycle - something which their Russian and European counterparts also claim. India lacks a credible model for assessment of life cycle costs in the public domain and thus all manufacturers are hoping that they would be able to make it if their commercial bid is good enough.

The Russians, with the MiG-35, are banking on reliability of their machines, affordability and the long-standing relationship between the Indian Air Force and the MiG/Sukhoi family of fighters. The Indian Air Force flies the largest variety of MiGs apart from the Russians, themselves. Indian aircraft manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) also has a well established assembly line for manufacturing the MiG as well as the Sukhoi 30 MKI, which may prove to count as a Russian advantage. But reports indicate some problems with engine life may constrain the MiG.

The Swedish SAAB Gripen IN is the lightest fighter and, according to reports, comes with the promise of the establishment of a manufacturing facility in India. Some say this could also act as an alternative for the Indian Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, just recently cleared for operations. This makes the Swedes the dark horses in the race once the commercial bids are opened.  
Then there are offsets to be taken care of, with 50 percent being set as the ultimate bottom line. This will be a problem, though the Indian Ministry of Defence has recently expanded the list to include civil aviation as well as homeland security industry. This may benefit larger multi-product companies like EADS and Boeing, while the Russians have adequate penetration in the Indian defence industry for generating offsets without much difficulty. 

Given the complex decision matrix that a decision of this magnitude ($10 billion plus, spread over a number of years) involves, the final winner may be difficult to determine at this stage. Some say that true to past record, the Indian government may even go for cancellation or retrial. Two files on offsets pertaining to the highly confidential deal had been reportedly lost in a civil area in New Delhi recently but were soon recovered, deepening the mystery around the whole incident. If there is delay or cancellation, this would be a big blow to all six manufacturers considering the substantial investments made so far.

The overall uncertainty surrounding the identity of the ultimate MMRCA winner will generate significant buzz at the Bangalore air show and, though the decision to open the commercial bids is not likely to be made until the middle of the year, vendors will make a strong pitch through their aircraft, aero models and video displays in the hope that the decision makers are listening closely. 
Rahul Bhonsle Contributor:   Rahul Bhonsle


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